Mornings were cool. Dry. And oddly quiet.
We'd heard hippos and baboons at night, maybe hyenas, too, and a bunch of "Who knows?" sounds. Here in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve on the Kenya-Tanzania border, it could be elephant, rhino, even lion.
Whatever, it was extraordinary. And that's exactly why we'd come to Africa.
Up before dawn, showered, and dressed in our safariest of outfits, Carolyn and I downed coffee and cookies (before the monkeys got to them), closed the tent, and crossed the shaky rope footbridge to our Land Rover and Sammy, our Maasai warrior driver, safari guide, and soon to be good friend.
“Look up!” exclaimed Carolyn. The night sky above was jam-packed with stars. When Carl Sagan saw his “billions and billions” of stars, he must have been looking at the equatorial African sky.
By daybreak, we were deep in the African savannah. The iconic, flat grassland seemed to reach to the ends of the earth. Breaking the horizon we saw only the occasional acacia tree. And over there, a rare Maasai giraffe and her young son. And topis. And impalas. Thompson gazelles and little dikdiks. Beyond, by the lonely acacia topped with two tawny eagles, a small herd of elephants.
Ostriches chased an annoying jackal, and all was right with the world.
This was the beginning of time. Eden. God's country. It was absolute magic, interrupted only by sound of camera shutters. Carolyn and I looked at one another, smiling, knowing how each of us had spent 60 years waiting for this very moment.
Carolyn will tell her story later. For me, it was a fifth-grade encounter with Osa Johnson's I Married Adventure that turned the Dark Continent, as Africa was then known, to a place of dangerous, yet infinite wonders. Today, instead of rifles, we pack cameras. Instead of small, leaky tents vulnerable to monkey attacks, we sleep safely in soft four-poster beds, with hot showers, flush toilets, and electric for camera-battery charging.
Kiss a Giraffe
From that moment three days earlier when Carolyn kissed a Rothchild's giraffe at the Giraffe Centre near Nairobi, we knew: This would be the trip of a lifetime. A place on a whole different plain, if you pardon the pun, where wild animals take center stage and you, my friend, are there only to treasure and to be grateful for your life and theirs.
What we didn't know is how intimate we'd become with two tribes of Kenya's original Africans, the Samburu and the Maasai. That was not planned, not included in your typical safari.
In the relatively remote Samburu National Reserve, located about an hour and a half north of Nairobi via a 10-seater Cessna Caravan, the Samburu village is at first glance little more than a circle of mud and dung two-room, windowless huts, one room for the family, one for calves. Cattle, the wealth of the tribe, are bedded for protection in the center of the village.
Until our safari lodge, Samburu Intrepids, built a school for the children and dug a well for the village, these nomadic pastoralists, as do most tribes here, moved often for survival.
The most colorful, most delightful line of singing and dancing women this side of Vegas greeted us. Women young and old were dressed in traditional clothing of bright red material with multi-beaded necklaces, bracelets, and earrings.
For eons, these handsome people lived isolated in prehistory. Even the conquering Brits closed the area to outsiders. Today, Samburu sell their jewelry to tourists like us in exchange for their school, well, and open hospitality. With one foot in the Stone Age and the other in the 21st Century, I wonder how long they can resist the temptation of, say, a generator or an outhouse.
Here men have as many wives as they can afford. But when I asked one of these smiling young women with whom we'd become friends if she'd like to be my Number-Two wife, she replied, "How many cows do you have?" And then, after short consideration, she said to Carolyn, "He's too old. I want a warrior."
To which Carolyn replied, "Me, too!"
As with their Maasai cousins to the southwest, meat is only eaten on special occasions. Milk is the Samburu mainstay, often mixed with blood. (At a similar village in the Mara, chronically anemic Carolyn was invited to supper. Unfortunately, our tight schedule wouldn't permit it. We hope to return some day with rain check in hand. Carolyn could use the blood!)
Our good friend and safari guide, Sammy Leseita.
The Great Ewaso Nyiro River provides life to this rugged area, so unlike the flat plains with which we most associate Kenya and safaris. Yet the big five (elephant, lion, rhino, leopard and buffalo) abound. Along with the reticulated giraffe, Grevy's zebra and others almost unique to this area.
From our tent, we watched the animals come to drink. As hunting has been outlawed in Kenya since the 1970s, animals with the exception of the leopard are completely unafraid of man and his vehicles. More than once we saw a lion take rest in the shadow of a Land Rover full of tourists on safari.
Safari is the Swahili word for journey. Not just journeys by Land Rover, but those of the mind and spirit. Journeys of self-discovery. Journeys that open the heart and soul.
Such is the safari from which we have just returned.
KENYAN SAFARI: THE NITTY-GRITTY
Getting There: Ah, here's the rub. From Tampa to Nairobi, it took us two full days. Tampa New York's JFK (probably the closest to hell any of us will ever be in this mortal plain) London's Heathrow Nairobi. The trick? Plan your Nairobi flight so that you have time to taxi to one of the many hotels near Heathrow for 40 winks and a shower. It makes all the difference.
Costs: As with the flights' duration, their cost also is a bit hard to swallow. For the two of us on three airlines (Delta, Virgin, Kenya), about $3,000. The Kenyan safari itself isn't cheap, either. (Remember, this is the trip of a lifetime!) Kenyan safaris start at about $1,500 per person. You get pretty much what you pay for. (See Kent Redding's advice here.) We were very pleased with our stays with the Mara and Samburu Intrepids. At both these luxurious lodges, we enjoyed excellent food and service and, in spite of being in the middle of nowhere, we lacked for nothing.
Seven nights Heritage Intrepids Safari, featuring Samburu Intrepids, Great Rift Valley Lodge and Mara Intrepids, are priced from $2,325 - $3,410 per person (children at 50 percent), depending on season.
Parmasu, our safari guide in Samburu.
Speaking of children, if you want to do something very, very special for your grandkids, take them on safari! The Heritage people have youth programs galore, including a "bush school" with excursions to historical sites, practical conservation work, and cultural and sporting exchanges with the local Maasai and Samburu villages. Heritage's "Adventurers Club," for grandkids four to 12, study the bountiful butterflies, plant a tree, cast Big Cat tracks from the real thing, even teach how to build a fire from two sticks something I was never able to do.
Price includes one-night bed and breakfast at Nairobi hotel (ours was a beautiful Holiday Inn), full-board while on safari, all game drives, airstrip transfers and domestic airfare and park entrance fees. Price excludes Visa ($50), beverages, laundry, and tips. All facilities offer laundry service. This cuts down on the amount of stuff you must bring.
For a good overview of East African safaris (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda), check out Express Travel Group.
TIPS FOR TRAVELING TO AFRICA
Compiled for Suddenly Senior by Kent Redding
Like no other continent in the world, Africa offers breathtaking scenery, unparalleled wildlife, and rich cultures. For travelers with an adventurous spirit, there is no better place for your next vacation. Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana, Namibia, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi, South Africa and Zambia are all fantastic safari destinations. Carolyn shooting elephants.
Things to consider before you book a trip include:
When to go: In most destinations, June to October is peak season, offering the best weather and game viewing, but also peak-season pricing. To make your dollar stretch further, consider traveling in low or shoulder season.
Where to go: For a typical two-week safari, consider limiting your visit to one or two countries so you can truly experience where you are. In East Africa, Kenya and Tanzania offer huge numbers of animals, rich culture, and that wild, "National Geographic" experience. Rwanda and Uganda offer great primates (gorillas, chimps and more). In southern Africa, South Africa and Botswana offer great "up-close-and-personal" experiences with wildlife, while Namibia boasts great deserts and wildlife. Zambia is famous for walking safaris and tours in "Africa as it used to be…"
Cost: Safaris are not inexpensive. For a good safari for nine days, land-only costs can range from $2,500-$15,000 per person. To compare quotations from different countries, divide the price by the total number of nights. Make certain they include the same number of days in parks, the same accommodations, internal flights and transfers, all the same meals, etc. Don't choose a safari company solely based on price often a cheap price means lower quality. Competent guides, reliable vehicles, and personalized service are key, so go with a company that has excellent references.
What to bring: In general, pack light with a limited number of quick drying, earth-tone clothes. In many areas, temperatures might be cooler than you expect. My standard bag includes two pair of shorts, two pair of pants, six shirts, a fleece, and a rain jacket. Other must-bring items include a sun hat, camera, and small flashlight. Most companies offer suggested packing lists.
Our Maasai friend, Nasipi.
Health: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers suggested inoculations and health recommendations for all countries. Visit www.cdc.gov for more information before consulting with a travel clinic in your area. Otherwise, take all your own prescription medications with you, along with your bug spray and anti-malaria medications. Drink only bottled water.
Safety: Africans are generally friendly and hospitable people and visitors are made to feel very welcome. Like most places in the world, there are good and bad places, and some general rules to follow. In the wild, remember that you are a visitor in the "home" of the animals. Respect them. In cities and towns, stay with your guide or keep to public areas. Check the U.S. State Department's website, www.state.gov to keep abreast of changing political climates and travel warnings.
For mature travelers: Africa offers a wide range of accommodations and experiences. However, many roads are in poor condition and driving can be very bumpy and dusty. If you have pre-existing conditions like asthma or back problems, be sure to take your medications with you and choose a safari that goes at a pace that is comfortable for you.
Kent Redding is a former camp manager and safari guide in Africa and current owner of Africa Adventure Consultants, a boutique safari planning company in Denver, Colorado. He can be reached at 866-778-1089 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2007 - Frank Kaiser
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